December 16

Sisters and Brothers, Grace and Peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. 

Or, if you prefer John’s way of greeting the congregation as he begins his sermon, “You brood of vipers!” 

It certainly grabs the audience’s attention!

These poor people have just come 20 miles, walked all day, dropped from 3000 feet above sea level to 1000 feet below sea level, and they will have to walk back. And this is how they are greeted. “You brood of vipers! Who told you to flee from the wrath to come?!” 

And before they can formulate their answer, before the can form their justification, which was about to be “But what wrath? We’re children of Abraham!” He cuts them off. Before the words have even formed on their lips. “Do not even begin to say, don’t come at me with, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.’” 

To be very clear, this is not just an off-hand comment. This is a game-changer. Regardless of who you are in ancient Israel, Abraham is the basis of your identity. Whether you are a Pharisee, committed to perfect adherence to the law of Moses, or whether you are just an everyday schmo, tending the fields and only going to the Temple when it’s required, Abraham is everything. The covenant with Abraham is everything. Through Abraham, God was determined to make a great nation, and if you are a Jew, you are that nation. If you are a Jew, you are an heir to God’s promise of blessing. 

And here is John, calling that into question. Wrath is coming, he says. Judgement is coming, he claims. The ax is lying at the root of the tree, and being a child of Abraham is not going to be enough.

Which is going to be shocking news to the crowds gathered there to hear John. No wonder he wound up in prison and then beheaded. His message is not a popular one. But the people of Israel are not the only ones to believe that their ancestry was enough to save them, enough to make them special, enough to set them apart as God’s only beloved people.

180 years ago today, another people who believed they had been set apart as God’s beloved people won a major victory.

In the 1830s, 5000 Afrikaners, descendants of Dutch settlers in the South African Cape, left the Cape Colony, taking with them the people they called their “clients.” These were, in fact, slaves, the descendants of the local KhoiKhoi and San tribes that had lived in the Cape for thousands of years. The British had recently taken control of the Cape Colony, about the same time they had abolished slavery throughout the British empire. These Afrikaners were determined to keep their slaves, and so they set out in wagons that looked very much like the ones that left here for Oregon during the American Westward Expansion. These Voortrekkers, as they are now known, were intent on establishing their own colonies in the African interior, and they eventually spread throughout Southern Africa into Namibia and Rhodesia. But it started with about 5000 people, men, women, and children, straggling out into the vast empty wilderness. 

Except that it wasn’t empty wilderness. It was settled land. It was home to bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers, KhoiKhoi and San, but more than that, it was the settled land of tribes of Bantu-speaking peoples, including the Zulu kingdom, a nation that had been founded by Shaka Zulu and was now run by his heir, Dingaan. And Dingaan and his people were not interested in sharing their land with these outsiders.

Over the next several years, amid skirmishes, attempted peace treaties, and perceived betrayals on both sides, many of the white families were killed and their cattle and sheep taken.History has not seen fit to report how many Africans died in these years.

Finally, in December of 1838, an Afrikaner commando militia of 500 men, along with 2 cannons and at least 500 guns, trekked toward the heart of the Zulu Kingdom, on the southeast coast of South Africa, near present-day Durban. About 300 miles from the coast, they created a laager, lashing their wagons together in a circle to form a strong defensive position on the banks of the Ncome River. 

The next day, December 16, 1838169539-050-dfe23e42, a huge Zulu force of over 10,000 attacked. They were armed only with spears. They were met by cannon and rifle fire. When they finally retreated, they left over 3000 dead behind. The Afrikaners lost not a single man of their 500. The Battle of Blood River, so-named for the waters that ran red that day, was the beginning of the end for the Zulu Kingdom, which soon split and disintegrated under further pressure from Afrikaner settlers.

The Afrikaners took their victory as evidence, not of the superiority of rifles over spears or cannons over barefoot warriors; rather, they took it as evidence of God’s favor for their cause. They took it as confirmation that God approved of their actions, that God had destined this land for them, that God had chosen them to subdue and civilize the savages. This story became their foundational story, and the retelling of it was used to justify and reinforce Apartheid over 100 years later. 

December 16 was a national holiday for the ruling Afrikaners, and was called Dingaan’s Day, just to remind the defeated African people of their disgraced king. Later it became known as the Day of the Covenant. Because they believed that they had a new covenant, a mandate from God to slaughter the Zulu people and their neighbors, to steal their land, and to establish their own White African nation.

I would not want to equate the deeds of white South Africans before and during Apartheid with the crowds that stand in front of John the Baptist in the wilderness of the Jordan. The Jewish people have been, through most of their history, the victims of the kind of bigotry and hatred that led to Apartheid and the Holocaust and the Atlantic Slave Trade and a long list of other atrocities. But John’s message to them is the same message that was lost on so many down through the years: 

God is in the business of bringing blessing, yes. Of claiming God’s children, absolutely. Of making covenants, even. But God’s blessing of Abraham was not for Abraham. It was for all nations. Abraham was blessed so that all nations of the world would be blessed through him. 

Blessed to be a blessing.

This is what we so often miss in God’s blessings. And in missing this, we create for ourselves mythologies of being blessed-er than thou.We stake our righteousness, our identity, on our own sense of who we are, and we forget who we have been made by God to be. Afrikaners in South Africa, Aryan nationalists in Nazi Germany, white slavers in the American South, the Ottomans in Armenia, Hutus in Rwanda, the settlers of the American West, it has happened over and over again throughout history. We buy in to a belief that God has favored us, our people, over and above others, and we claim those blessings for ourselves. We read wealth and worldly success as signs of God’s favor, and we forget what God’s first covenant stipulated. “In you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” 

This is what John calls the crowds back to, there in the wilderness. Blessed to be a blessing. 

God’s promise does not depend on our actions. We are not blessed because we do anything. We are blessed, simply because God loves us. But being blessed, our question becomes, along with the crowds, “What then should we do?” 

The fact is, we who sit in this room are among the most blessed people in the world, if we use the measures of wealth, power, access, and privilege. But none of that is proof of anything other than an accident of our birth. 

What then should we do? 

John’s answer is clear. The terms of God’s covenant are clear. Having been so blessed, we are to use our blessings to bless others. Our wealth, our power, our privilege is to be used to alleviate the suffering of others. We are to share our comfort, and to use our access to advocate for those who do not have access. 

Last week, John proclaimed, in the words of Isaiah, that “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.” God has promised to make smooth paths through our wilderness. Yet we humans insist on building mountains, and setting ourselves on top of them, building fortresses in which to horde our blessings, our privilege, our sense of self-importance, while outside our neighbors suffer and beg for the scraps from our tables. We focus on human community, defined in human terms, by the blessings we most value: Race, ethnicity, nationality, class, denomination, politics; we build walls of every stripe, determined to be right, to be proven worthy, to earn God’s blessing, for our community.

But this week, John reminds us what God’s community looks like. What God’s covenant looks like. Whether it is the covenant with Abraham or with Moses, or with David, or the New Covenant that was established through Christ. 

God’s covenant always points us toward one another. 

God’s covenant always leads us to ask, what then should we do? 

How should we be with one another?

Since 1990, Apartheid has been history in South Africa. But the mythologies, the stories and beliefs that made Apartheid possible, those endure. And in the early days of their new nation, the people had to decide what to do with December 16. Abolish it completely? Or transform it? Finally it was decided that it would be kept as a public holiday, “with the purpose of fostering reconciliation and national unity.” 

The first meeting of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission took place on December 16, 1995. Since then, December 16 has become the Day of Reconciliation, and it has been used to celebrate the many minorities of South Africa, as well as promote equality between all, regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, or gender.

What then should we do? The story of December 16 is a good start. Reconciliation. Turning toward one another. If you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher wall. John challenges the crowds to return to the path that God is building for us through the wilderness, the path of right relationship with God and with one another.

The problem is, we will always want to believe that this path is the prerequisite. We always re-tell the story as an if-then. What then should we do, we ask, so that God will love us? What then should we do, we wonder, in order to win God’s favor, in order to be considered a child of God, in order to be raised up as God’s child. 

But our story, the story that matters more than any ancestry.com story about where we came from, our story is the story of the God who comes to us, regardless of where we are from. The Word of God that came to John in the wilderness was a game-changer. John dismissed human stories claiming that God would only, could only, work through the children of Abraham. Instead, John told us God’s story. God can raise up children of Abraham from the stones. 

And God has. 

From the stones of our hearts, the stones of our fortress walls, God has raised up children of Abraham, children of God’s covenant, children of God’s story, those who seek relationship and reconciliation, rather than privilege and separation. 

God has chosen us, raised us up, named us and claimed us as God’s own, while we were yet sinners, while we were yet placing our trust in stories of our own superiority, while we were yet shutting ourselves off, God has come to us, in the prophets, in the wilderness, in the Word made flesh, in a baby in a manger, in our baptisms, in the body and blood of Christ,and claimed us for a different story,for God’s story. The story of those blessed to be a blessing.

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The Year of the Lord’s Favor

As I was reading this week’s story about Jesus returning to his home synagogue to preach, I was reminded of something they told us at seminary. They said that at seminary you are going to learn a whole bunch of fancy terms, Greek translations, Hebrew words, names of Church Fathers and theologians and philosophers from Aristotle to Augustine, from Anslem to Abelard. (Why do they all start with A?) You will learn all of it, and then you will want to use it when you preach. And what they said at seminary was, use it. Once. Use it the first sermon you preach when you go home to your home congregation. Prove to them that you have received the great education that they sent you to get, prove to them that their investment in you was worth it. And then never drop another name again. Do not, under any circumstances, try to preach any other sermon in your life, on the topic of the metaphysical juxtaposition of ontology and anthropology in the writings of Athanasius (another A).

And as I thought about this advice, it occurred to me. Things have changed. Things have changed a lot since that advice was first handed out. Because first of all, the professors who were giving this advice were clearly thinking of a time when my home congregation had the money to pay for seminary education in the first place, as theirs likely did when they went to seminary. And because second of all, this advice originated in a time when seminary students were sent from their home congregations, so that they could come back and serve their home congregations. Clearly, things have changed.

Jesus shows up in his hometown, in Nazareth, and the first thing he does is to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath day to preach. I imagine the people there are fairly excited, like the people in a seminarian’s home congregation on their first visit back from school. This is a kid that they have known since he was a child. Jesus is 30 years old now, and he’s beginning to get a little notoriety. The people of his hometown are glad to welcome him back, the hometown boy done good. They won’t mind if he sprinkles some fancy words and drops a few names in his sermon. Heck, it’ll reflect well on them that they’ve got such a big-shot affiliated with their town. And if he keeps on growing in wisdom and in years, in divine and human favor, the way that Luke says, then, hey, the people of Nazareth stand to benefit! He doesn’t even need to read from the scroll, he doesn’t even need really to speak. All he has to do is show up, demonstrate that Nazareth is still his hometown, demonstrate that these are his people, and they’ll be happy. Because if it turns out that this guy is the Messiah, Nazareth is bound to get the best of the Messiah’s reign. Maybe he’ll set up court here, bring in money, jobs, new sources of wealth, not to mention the favor of God! No wonder the people are thrilled when he picks up the scroll of Isaiah, and reads this very passage, from Isaiah 61.

It is a passage that we heard just a few weeks ago. In fact, all of the stories that Jesus refers to in this passage are stories that we have heard over the last few months, as we have worked our way through the Narrative Lectionary. It certainly helps to have these stories fresh in our minds as we listen today. As Jesus reads this passage from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he stops there.

And the people are riveted. This is exactly what they had been waiting to hear! The year of the Lord’s favor! That’s what Nazareth has been longing for, waiting for, yearning for, ever since the Romans came, ever since the Babylonians came, ever since the Assyrians came, hundreds if not thousands of years of longing for a year of favor!

Because let’s face it, it is a hard-knocked life in Nazareth. The town sits above the Sea of Galilee, on the top of a very steep cliff, where it’s easier to defend. Below Nazareth stretches the Jordan valley, which turns from lush green to scrub desert within a matter of miles, dropping quickly down to the harsh salt flats of the Dead Sea. In a good year, there is plenty, but it does not take much to upset the delicate balance, and shift the desert northward, to put the tang of salt in your nostrils and the taste of dust on your tongue. Add to that invasion after invasion, out here at the edge of civilization. From the top of that cliff today, you can see the Golan Heights. In Jesus’ day you would have seen the hills of Nineveh, the mountains of Babylon, the lands of the Philistines, of Zarepheth of Sidon. In other words, then as now, you could see the invaders coming from all sides, and you knew before even the people of Jerusalem that war was upon you, and that no one was coming to your aid. Nazareth was, is, a hard place to live.

So when Jesus proclaims the words of Isaiah, “the year of the Lord’s favor,” and then sits there and tells their eager, excited faces, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” these people are thinking, “finally! Some justice for us! some relief for us! some favor. For us!” And they forget the rest of the story, the stories of Elijah and the widow of Zarapheth, and of Elisha and the leper Naaman.

So Jesus reminds them. The bad news of the good news.
Good news: this is the year of our Lord’s favor.
Bad news: it’s not just for you.

Jesus is bringing the change that Isaiah spoke of, turning the world upside down, as Hannah and Zechariah and Mary sang. But that change doesn’t just affect those who know Jesus intimately, it doesn’t just affect those who raised him, those who changed his nappies, those who sent him off to seminary. The change that Jesus brings,It’s not just for those who have accepted him as their personal savior. It’s not just for those who show up in church every Sunday. It’s not just for those of us who think we have this God-business figured out.

It is change for the whole world.

And for the people of Nazareth, and maybe for us, that feels like bad news. Because those are the bad guys. Those are the invaders, the ones who have made them suffer. If the good news comes to our enemies, too, is it really good news? If I have to share God’s favor with everyone, if I don’t get to choose whom God rewards, and whom God punishes, do I want God’s favor? The people of Nazareth answer honestly, if nothing else.

They don’t want it.

Jesus has reminded them of what they already know, really. God is not only the God of Nazareth. God is not only the God of Galilee. God is not even only the God of Israel. God is the God of all nations, and this good news is not going to be contained. This good news is not going to be used to lift one up over the other. This good news is not going to draw lines, to reinforce boundaries, to separate people from one another because of class or race or gender or age or disability or sexuality or denomination or religion or any other thing that we care to come up with.

This good news is going to tear down all those walls and cross all those lines and break all those boundaries, and it is going to scare the Bejeezus out of us. That’s what it did to the people of Nazareth, it scared them and it made them angry, so angry that they were blinded by fear, blinded by rage, ready to throw their own kin, this kid whose nappies they changed, right off the top of that cliff. So blinded by their fear and their rage that they could not even see Jesus moving through the midst of them, as he walked away.

Change is scary. There’s no question. The world has changed. The Church has changed. The culture has changed. Our community has changed. Our families have changed. You’ve changed. I’ve changed. Change happens. And we can lament and mourn about that change. We can be scared and angry, that’s fine. But the last thing we should do is to get so scared, so blind with rage, that we forget the most important thing.That Jesus is right here in our midst. And that has not changed.

And that today, today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in our hearing. Yes, things are changing, and you may not like the way they look afterwards. You may find yourself sitting next to a widow from Zarapheth, or an Assyrian leper; You may discover that God’s table includes those you would never expect, maybe even those you never wanted to find there. Catholics, Baptists, or, dare I suggest it, Buddhists. You may find that God’s table is far bigger than you had ever imagined, and that you are not entirely comfortable with the other people you find there, and you would rather pick and choose who gets to sit at this table.

But that is exactly the point. God’s table is huge, and that has never changed. God’s table includes all, and that has never changed. God’s table is rooted in the love of God for you.And that has never changed.

What has changed is our perception of that table. What has changed is our ability to see that table. And change is scary. But the most important thing that Jesus told the people of Nazareth, though they were too afraid to hear it, too angry to see it; the most important thing that he tells us, if we have ears to hear; the most important thing is that God is here. God is here, among you, working in and through this change. God has chosen to become one of you, to walk among you, to be in your midst, to walk through this changing world, and to walk with you as you change, too. When you look past your fear and your rage, you will see that God is here. And when you can see that, the change is not so scary. It might even be a blessing. It might even be the year of the Lord’s favor.